Becoming a Noble: Medieval Europe’s Most Exclusive Club

From the lecture series: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., The College of William and Mary

Becoming a noble in the High Middle Ages was no easy task. Nobles used safeguards such as bloodlines to maintain their elitist status. Discover why they became so exclusive, and learn of the unique privileges granted to lords.

(Image: Jan Matejko/Public domain)

The Nobility Becomes More Exclusive

Not only did nobles have specific, well-defined privileges by 1300 that they guarded ferociously, but nobility became more exclusive. Nobility was much more of a closed group by the end of the High Middle Ages than it was at the beginning of the age.

Specific requirements had to be met that went beyond mere public opinion. You had to be descended from other nobles. You had to be able to prove that your parents, their ancestors, and their ancestors, had also been considered noble.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

By making nobility a hereditary condition that was passed by blood relation, the nobility became more of a closed group. You could try to break into the nobility by attempting to forge documents to prove your ancestors were nobles, or you could buy exemptions from these rules.

It was never an entirely closed group, but it was substantially closed, much more than it had been around the year 1000.

How Nobles Proved Their Bloodline

The medieval nobility, because it had become a hereditary group by 1300, devised various instruments to publicize and prove its bloodline, to separate itself more clearly from the other segments of medieval society. These instruments included family last names, or “patronymics.”

If you had traveled to Europe in 1000, you would have noticed that individuals had one name: Reinhardt, Natghar, Phil. There was no second family name that all members of a singular family held.

By 1300, patronymics were relatively common. The practice of using a singular family name that all members of a family would share began in the 11th century with the medieval nobility.

From there, the practice trickled down to other segments of society. Quite revealingly, the earliest patronymics or family names that noble families adopted tended to be derived from family castles to better indicate who their family ancestors were.

Nobles would take the name of the most important castle they owned, and it would become their family name. It revealed something about what was truly important to a medieval noble.

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In addition to introducing these patronymics, to immediately help identify an individual’s ancestors, medieval nobles during the High Middle Ages developed coats of arms as well.

Coat of Arms of Queen Anne of Great Britain
Coat of arms of Queen Anne of Great Britain (1707-1714), the last monarch of the House of Stuart. (Image: Sodacan/Public domain)

Coats of arms are visual representations of someone’s industry or specialization. The coat of arms that was depicted on an individual’s shield or banner made the family that person belonged to immediately recognizable.

The high medieval nobility also tried to separate itself from the rest of society through its increasing use of genealogies. The high medieval nobility had a true mania for genealogies, which didn’t exist in great numbers before the year 1000.

Most high medieval genealogies only date to 1000, at least the honest ones could, because of the change in naming patterns. Around 1000, research hits a dead end, because patronymics didn’t exist. You are simply confronted with a sea of individuals who only had one name.

Knights Rise in Status

Nobility was better defined by 1300 and more exclusive; knights had risen in status during the period between 1000 and 1300.

Knighthood, which had not been an honorable vocation in 1000, was considered honorable by 1300. The title of “knight” was added to all the other noble titles: You could be “count” and “knight,” “duke” and “knight.”

The ceremony of dubbing
In 1300, to undergo the ceremony of “dubbing,” one had to show that their ancestors were also knights. Painting by Edmund Leighton (1901). (Image: Edmund Leighton/Public domain)

As knighthood became equated with nobility, knights were the lowest rung of medieval nobility; to become more exclusive than it had been, knighthood, too, became a hereditary condition.

To become a knight, the individual underwent the ceremony of “dubbing,” a high medieval invention. You also had to prove that your ancestors were also knights. That was not the case in 1000.

Starting in the year 1000, if you could have afforded the equipment and training, you were a knight. By 1300, that was not enough anymore; conventions had changed and you had to have a family name.

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Raising the Bar to Knighthood

The definition of nobility changed during the High Middle Ages with the appearance of a group of people who had the economic resources to become knights, to acquire the equipment, and to train.

These people regarded entrance into knighthood—and by extension the nobility—as social advancement. The shift by the nobility to demand hereditary proof was largely a defensive move to keep these individuals at arm’s length.

The groups were the townspeople and craftsman in the High Middle Ages, merchants especially. As the commercial revolution gathered steam, and as the commercial life revived, they began to amass portions of wealth that began to rival those of at least the lowest ranks of medieval nobility.

To give up work, to be able to live a noble life, and to fight, rather than to have an occupation to subsist, was considered to be the greatest form of social success.

However, the lifestyles, mentality, and characteristics of these townspeople were, in some ways, reprehensible to nobles. To keep these individuals out, nobles made nobility dependent on one’s ancestors.

The idealized portrait that medieval knights, counts, or dukes spent their time fighting ogres, or even trying to do good, should be discarded.

Fighting and warfare were endemic within the nobility. The nobility turned its military superiority to good economic use. They fought constantly because it paid to fight.

Because of nobility’s willingness to constantly fight with one another, and use its military superiority to brutalize other segments of the population, noble violence was a major social problem during the High Middle Ages.

Medieval nobles used their military prowess in various ways to grow wealthier. Warfare always had the possibility of profit through looting, at the expense of fellow nobles, and at the expense of religious establishments; churches were often wealthy and not well defended.

Warfare, however, always carried risk. There was the risk that you might die or that you might lose.

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The Rights of Lordship

The nobility also used its military superiority to create a system whereby it could make quite a sum money without the risks inherent in actual warfare. The nobility used its ability to fight better than anyone else, to impose and sustain its rights of lordship over non-nobles.

Lordship is a difficult concept to grasp today since it no longer exists as a system. Nonetheless, the system of lordship was ubiquitous within high medieval Europe.

As a noble—a knight, a castellan, a count, or a duke—you were able to create rights of lordship over people who lived near you, such as peasants or townspeople; these rights of lordship gave you certain powers over other individuals.

As someone’s lord, you had the right to collect an array of payments from other individuals. These payments might be made in cash or kind, such as a percentage of someone’s crops.

In addition to taking someone’s money—theoretically in return for protection—you also had rights of justice over others as well.

In this capacity, the lord could try individuals for crimes and collect the fines if the individuals were found guilty. As the lord was the judge, they would probably find the individuals guilty, since the fines went into their treasury.

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In addition to judicial rights, the rights to try others for crimes and to levy exactions, lords also had a third right over others. They had the right to exact unpaid labor from individuals.

You could compel someone to work your land and didn’t have to give them anything to do so, either in equity, rights or pay.

This was part and parcel of the rights of lordship.

Common Questions About Becoming a Noble

Q: Who could become a noble during the Middle Ages? 

Nobles were born from noble bloodlines. These were the landowners, knights, and people related to and under the King, either through blood or royal service. Most of the nobles were warriors.

Q: Was life different for nobles than for peasants?

Life was vastly better for nobles than peasants. Nobles ate very well from specially prepared foods, spent social leisure time, and trained in the fighting arts. Peasants lived a dreary life of constant work for very little gain with which they mostly bought food.

Q: What type of clothes did nobles wear in the Middle Ages?

Nobles wore finely stitched clothing made from excellent materials such as damask, silk, velvet or fur.

Q: What did nobles do for a living?

Nobles managed the land which the peasants lived on and worked.

This article was updated on December 3, 2019

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About Kate Findley 274 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.